fb-pixelMassachusetts domestic violence laws should reflect modern understanding of 'coercive control' Skip to main content
EDITORIAL

Abuse takes many forms, and domestic violence laws should reflect them

Since state domestic violence laws were written, the understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse has evolved, and laws must keep up. Advocates make a strong case that the abuse many people, often women, experience from intimate partners is not adequately accounted for in current law.

Mourners at a candlelight vigil honoring Shirley Branco Owen and bringing awareness to domestic violence on the Franklin Town Common in 2021. Brendon J. Owen, 47, her ex- husband, was charged with murdering Shirley Branco Owen before setting fire to her house.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

For years, the Brookline woman’s husband abused her. According to motions she filed with Norfolk Probate and Family Court, he would throw things at her, rant in the middle of the night, take her purse and phone so she couldn’t leave, call her names, and stalk her at work. The man threatened to rape her and slammed a bed frame on the floor.

Because much of his abuse was not physical, the woman only applied for a restraining order more than a year after she left the marriage, in 2022, after an incident when he physically pulled her away from a car as they were transferring custody of their son and engaged in behavior that endangered their son, according to the restraining order.

Advertisement



Since she left her husband, the woman, who requested anonymity as a victim of domestic violence, said she has learned the term “coercive control,” a pattern of behavior where an abuser controls their victim through intimidation, isolation, or threats. That definition, she said, fit her situation perfectly.

But under state law, a person can only get a restraining order if there is a threat of physical harm or sexual assault.

If the law recognized other types of abusive behavior, the woman said, “I think I would have had a restraining order from day one. I didn’t have a restraining order, so a year and a half into the divorce process, I experienced another assault.”

The woman has joined other advocates for survivors of domestic violence who are seeking to change Massachusetts law to let a judge issue a restraining order when there is a pattern of “coercive control” or technological abuse.

Bills sponsored by Representatives Natalie Higgins and Tram Nguyen and Senator Michael Moore would let a judge issue a restraining order based on “a pattern of conduct that has the purpose or effect of substantially restricting an individual’s safety or autonomy through intimidation, isolation, implicit or explicit threats, or by compelling compliance.” The bill gives examples including repeatedly humiliating someone, isolating them from friends and family, controlling their finances, damaging property, abusing pets, or threatening to report them to immigration authorities. Technological abuse includes cyberstalking or “revenge porn,” which is nonconsensual sharing of explicit images.

Advertisement



Since state domestic violence laws were written, the understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse has evolved, and laws must keep up. Advocates make a strong case that the abuse many people, often women, experience from intimate partners is not adequately accounted for in current law. However, lawmakers must make sure any law has a clear, narrow definition, so judges, lawyers, and litigants understand exactly what behavior is inappropriate.

The term “coercive control” was coined in a 2007 book by that name. It has become commonly used by researchers to explain how abusers use coercive behavior to control their victim in ways other than violence. Over the last four years, Hawaii, California, Connecticut, and Washington incorporated the concept into state laws that define domestic violence — generally in civil laws related to child custody or restraining orders. Scotland in 2018 passed a law making domestic violence through coercive control a criminal offense.

Michelle Cruz, a Western Massachusetts attorney who represents victims of intimate partner violence, said the police and courts still lack an understanding of coercive control so abusive behavior is often seen as innocuous and not reflected in judicial decisions about restraining orders and child custody. “The problem is the system hasn’t caught up,” Cruz said.

Advertisement



Cruz said changing the law then educating judges about coercive control could allow victims to more quickly find safety — and save lives. Looking only at violence and not other types of abuse, she said, avoids identifying behavior that can be a precursor to homicide.

Marsha Kazarosian, a past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association who represents victims seeking restraining orders, said attorneys have long faced challenges obtaining protection for clients who are harassed and coerced in ways other than the threat of violence. “There are just so many ways that a person of power in a relationship can exercise control that would limit somebody’s freedom or threaten their safety or demean or diminish them to a point they’re no longer themselves,” Kazarosian said.

Hema Sarang-Sieminski, deputy director of Jane Doe Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, agreed that current restraining order law “really leaves out a number of behaviors that are at the heart of what we consider the dynamics of power and control at the heart of domestic violence — the control, the isolation, psychological abuse or harm.”

The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposes expanding the law unless the conduct is carefully defined. John Amabile, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, raised concerns about the serious impact of a restraining order, since violating one is a criminal offense. “It’s very important the orders be limited to a very narrow range of conduct,” Amabile said. “Broadening the scope of the issuance of restraining orders is something that has to be done with a lot of care, and having amorphous definitions that are not easily understood is a bad idea.”

Advertisement



Any update needs to be done in a way that is narrowly tailored and easy for judges and litigants to understand. There is also a desperate need for judges to be educated about domestic abuse.

For years, domestic violence victims have reported that family court judges do not believe their allegations of abuse and hold abuse allegations against them. Joan Meier, founding director of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University Law School, found in a 2020 study that mothers’ claims of abuse tend to increase their risk of losing custody, especially when fathers say the mother is trying to alienate them.

Domestic violence situations are often messy and complicated. As the understanding of domestic violence changes, the law needs to keep pace.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.